We live as individuals. Our struggles, our pains—they are ultimately and uniquely our own. Yet we are also parts of greater wholes—our workplaces and communities. Our families. For many, the closest relationships are the ones we share with our families—these are the ties that shape us, that forge our deepest currents and give us—for better or for worse—our greatest sense of self. As we grow, we must define ourselves, both within and without our families. In our blood, we carry echoes of the past and the hint of the future. In our breath, we carry the present and our responsibilities to be the people we were raised to be. The Blessings, Elise Juska’s touching and intelligent new novel, offers a look at a modern family, its good times and bad; its complexities, its resiliency, and its love.
I’ve long been an admirer of Juska’s writing—and in The Blessings, her talents shine brighter than ever. Juska’s work carries an understated beauty, her images crisp and precise. She is observant, calm, and her sentences flow with the cadence of music. Consider this early description of a family gathering:
The aunts are in motion, cutting the boys generous slabs and beaming as they head back to the living room, mouths full, sucking frosting off their thumbs—Stephen thick and slope-shouldered, Joey with his bristly crew cut and confident swagger, Alex hunched and bony—where they are absorbed into the crowd of men gathered around the TV. Abby can just hear her roommates: You mean the women in one room, men in the other? This has never struck Abby as strange before; it’s never struck her at all. In ten years, things will be different. People will have died or divorced; lines will have been blurred. But for now the men are in one room, the women in the other, and this demarcation feels comforting, familiar.
Juska places us in the midst of this swirl. We hear the family’s voices, feel the jostle of so many bodies as they navigate tiny rooms. Then she takes us deeper, beneath the surface, and the book’s complex heart waits in the presentation of characters honest and real. Later in the same scene, Abby, who’s home from college on Christmas break, sinks into herself as she observes her gathered family: “Abby feels loneliness now, pooling up inside her even as she sits among the people she’s known all her life. It’s the beginning of what will become and unsolvable ache. When she’s away, she’ll miss her family; when she’s with her family, she’ll miss herself.” Who among us hasn’t felt this tug, this place that feels so odd because we are lost among those we love most? Juska’s talents shine in moments like this, the revealing of unexpressed emotions, the confessions characters in silent turmoil. We not only see her characters; we feel them.
The Blessings is divided into eleven chapters, each told from from the point of view of a different family member. We see this family through lenses colored by generation and gender, by illness and loss and attempts at connection. Years pass—not with a jolt but with an ease that makes us feel as if we were aging along with the characters. We witness major life events—while others are observed in the rearview mirror, leaving us to see how these people cope with the return to normal that follows tragedy. Lives are shaken by the things we fear most—the late night phone call, the positive test result. Some prayers are answered, others not. We are left with a collage of sorts, nearly a dozen different portraits that provide reflections of both their narrators and of the Blessings. These collected takes on this family provide a core, a center that’s rich in detail and rendered in a depth made possible by the book’s shifting perspectives.
Families, like their individual members, possess public and private faces. Love runs deep in the Blessing family—but it’s a love that’s most often expressed in strength, in an allegiance to duty and responsibility. They offer their best to each other, yet each member harbors private fears. Here is one of the book’s most satisfying motifs—the manner in which we often look at one another, even those closest to us, yet we are powerless to truly recognize their struggles; how we hide our insecurities and secrets, either unwilling or unable to share them with those we love the most. It’s this denial of self while being present for others that give Juska’s characters their quiet nobility. Here’s the family’s matriarch reflecting on the death of one of her sons:
The nurse arrived with morphine and for the next six hours, Ann and Margie and Patrick and Lauren sat around him, encircled him, hands on him. Watching him destroyed Helen, broke her forever. But in the moment she withstood it, wanting his final image of her to be of comfort, determined to be strong for her son.
Grace—the word often came to mind when I read this book. There is grace in strength, grace in sacrifice, grace in understanding that self-realization often lies, in part, in sacrifice of the self. The Blessings takes us deep inside an ordinary family—we witness faith and struggle, success and failure. We hear the stories of individuals—and by the book’s end, we realize these individual voices are actually part of a chorus that sings a greater song, a song of family and the ties that bind like no other.
Curtis Smith is the author of the novels An Unadorned Life; Sound and Noise; and Truth or Something Like It. His work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing List of The Best American Spiritual Writing.